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We Surrender Our Dreams to Hunger / an interview with poet Sarah Kain Gutowski

We Surrender Our Dreams to Hunger

by Sarah Kain Gutowski

The woman doesn’t want to eat the bird, or the moth,
or swath her tongue in gnats or fruit flies.

Her tongue will not bend the way her mind dictates, in the way
her arm, sometimes late at night, abdicates the bed’s realm

and travels through the forest on its own. She feels a kind of static
where it used to lie, like a cloud of bees buzzing at her shoulder.

She dreams that her dismembered arm, a white branch stark
against the dark oak leaves, swings between the trees

and then crawls on its fingertips along the ground.
Her nail beds fill with black, wet earth. Her forearm glows

with the nighttime’s condensation: a slick, pale ember
in the moon’s occasional light. Beams push through the forest canopy,

highlight the crook of her elbow bent above a spider’s lattice,
or hooked around a clump of brush. Her arm, absent from sleep,

has great adventures. And then she wakes and shifts her weight,
only to discover something cold and clammy in the sheets beside her,

a lump of flesh she cannot call her own. Her other arm,
the one remaining in her bed, loyal until the end,

investigates by lifting the offending, foreign object
and then, in shock, dropping it.  It slaps against the mattress

and then the pain begins, the necessary hurt that comes
with reattachment. The cloud of bees lengthens and attacks,

a hundred stingers lodged inside her skin, and dissipates
like fog obscured by burning sun. And then she is aware

that her arm was always there, by her side,
and neither part, arm or mind, is happy when she awakes.

author photo

Sarah Kain Gutowski is the author of Fabulous Beast: The Sow (Hyacinth Girl Press) and a Professor of English at Suffolk County Community College, where she teaches writing and literature. Her writing has been published most recently in Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism and Painted Bride Quarterly.

She says it’s difficult to describe her style: “I’m certainly not experimental although I’m constantly trying new-for-me things in my work. I write a good deal of free verse, but I’m very interested in forms and what those restrictions can do for me in the act of creation, and how ultimately the form will support any kind of meaning.”

Sarah and Bekah connected through the 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour. We wanted to know more about Sarah and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about “We Surrender Our Dreams to Hunger.” How is it representative of your work?

A~This is from a fairy tale I wrote mostly with Spenserian stanzas but occasionally with these free verse poem “breaks” – kind of like the way a child interrupts a story with her questions as the parent reads to her. I like longer works, series of lyric poems that can tell a narrative. I’m a little in love with narrative.

Q~Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~This poem, the woman mentioned in it, is the protagonist of the fairy tale, a woman with a frog tongue who goes the way most (non-Disney) fairy tale heroines go – transformed through her trials, for better or for worse.

Currently, I’m making a poetry video out of this poem with one of my colleagues, Paul Turano, who’s a film editor and all around fantastic guy. He’s very patient with the fact that I have big ideas but little idea of how to execute them. The video **might** be ready by the end of April.

Q~Did the poem come easily to you or was it hard to write?

A~It came more easily than the rest of the fairy tale, partially because it was “triggered” by a question from my eldest daughter, to whom I was reading the fairy tale as I was creating it. She asked me, “Mama, couldn’t she eat a fly? Because she has a frog tongue.”

And, this was the weird answer that came out.

Q~What appeals to you about fairy tales?

A~Fairy tales — as a part of traditional literature like fable and myth, intended to explain our world while keeping us entertained by it —  pair the violently weird and inexplicable with attempts at constructing or exemplifying a moral code — and because fairy tales attempt these two things at the same time, they’re always going to fail in one way but succeed in another. I guess that’s what appeals to me — the mixture of failure and success, the way they demonstrate how human we are (while often employing inhuman, magical characters). The weird, violent side of fairy tales has always fascinated me and fascinates many writers. There are so many good fairy tales out there. Have you seen Del Toro’s The Shape of Water? It follows Vladmir Propp’s morphology of the fairy tale exactly — it’s so good. (Maybe not as good as Pan’s Labyrinth — that film is exquisite —  but it’s pretty damn good.)

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~Anne Sexton. I still feel like no one writes weird the way Sexton does. I don’t return to her as much as I do my later loves (Bishop, James Wright, Glück, Walcott), but I love the strangeness of her metaphors and images and the way they also make a bodily – visceral – sense to me. The acknowledgment and value of physical sensation that’s present in Sexton’s work – the way it’s as important as emotions and intellect in our very makeup, our personhood – is probably something I’ve always gravitated toward in all poetry. It’s something I strive to include and address with my own writing . . . so I’d say she made a pretty big impression on me.

Q~I’d say you accomplished that visceral quality in “We Surrender Our Dreams to Hunger” with the dismembered arm. Who are you reading now?

A~Ashley M. Jone’s debut collection of poems, Magic City Gospel. She’s going to be the featured reader at a creative writing festival we hold at Suffolk in the spring, and her work is a fantastic deconstruction of personal history, the history of the South, and contemporary politics – laying bare the complex connections between all three. I’m also rereading Amy Leach’s book of funny, whimsical, super smart essays, Things That Are, because the collection brings me so much joy. Also also, I’m finishing up J. Marc Harding’s wonderful, dark novel, Drowning in Sand. Also also also, I’m 1/8 into about fifteen different books because I WANT TO READ ALL OF THE THINGS, AND I DON’T HAVE TIME. Ahem.

Q~You’ve been applying for writing residencies. What is the appeal? What do you think it will do for your writing?

A~The appeal is tenfold right now. I teach full-time, I run a couple of different projects at the college, and I have a husband and three children. I’ve built a very full and amazing life with the college and my family, but it often means that quiet time, reflective time – which is very important to me personally and essential to my writing – is scarce. I try to carve it out regularly, in mornings before kids wake up, occasionally at night after everyone’s in bed, but deep work — becoming totally and wholly immersed in creation – doesn’t happen often, and it’s something that’s also necessary (for me) for larger projects, like the play I’ve been working on for ** gulp ** almost seven years. So . . . the appeal is the solace, the quiet, the opportunity for thinking and working. In the end, I hope residencies will allow me to draft. I can revise like a champ with all of the other life-stuff happening around me. But drafting, for me, needs alone-ness. A lot of it.

Q~How has being a college instructor changed your own writing?

A~It’s kept me very engaged with the work of other writers and artists and thinking about craft and how and why I make the choices I make with my writing. I may not have as much time to put pen to paper as I’d like, but because of my teaching I’m constantly thinking about the purpose and function and effects of what we write, and how what we write is part of a larger conversation with the work of our contemporaries, the work of writers in the past, and the work of future writers. These are issues I bring to my students with each class, be it a writing or a literature class. And, then when I do have time to put pen to paper, all of these thoughts shape my writing, or are contained within the writing itself.

Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

A~I’m still working on dealing with rejection myself, but a genuine focus on process over product helps. You really cannot help whether or not other people want to invest time and energy in your work. But, you can control the time and energy YOU invest in your work, to an extent; and if you’re putting time and energy into the work, you damn well better derive genuine joy and energy from the act of writing. If you don’t, you’re going to end up with a bitter, small inner life dominated by resentment. (I’ve been near that precipice before – I try to be conscious of staying as far from it as I can.)

Celebrating – again, genuinely – the work of other writers helps, too. It’s a good reminder that shared writing is part of a larger conversation, and that we can’t all speak at the same time, or nothing is heard.

Q~There are lots of publications out there. What are some literary gems you feel deserve more attention? Why will we love them?

A~BOMB magazine is amazing. A quick disclaimer – I am not always in love with their choices when they publish poetry or fiction. But, I absolutely adore their conversations between thinkers and creatives. I began reading BOMB in college, and it blew my little mind. You can be a poet and still find their interviews with architects and sculptors completely and wholly relevant and inspiring.

The Threepenny Review is also phenomenal. It may be “establishment” because it’s one of the oldest literary magazines in the states, and traditional/older lit mags may not print much work that challenges aesthetic norms (and, you know, sometimes that’s what you might be looking for), but it’s unsurpassed in its ability to make connections between ideas and various art forms, bringing together tremendous writers and thinkers and visual artists in each issue. The regular Symposium feature is one of my favorite things ever.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~My web site has links to projects I’m involved with, like an online New Hive collaboration, as well to the journals I’ve been printed in. I’m also on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Readers might also check out the link to my chapbook publisher, Hyacinth Girl Press. I’d love it if they bought copies of Fabulous Beast: The Sow, of course, but there are so many other good authors whose chapbooks have homes there. The press is worth checking out and supporting.

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